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Iraq's Most Senior Diplo Slain

Gunmen killed a deputy foreign minister as he went to work Saturday, the latest attack on Iraqi leaders in recent weeks. A radical cleric whose uprising killed hundreds pledged to support the new government if it works to end the U.S. military presence.

Bassam Salih Kubba, Iraq's most senior career diplomat, was mortally wounded in Baghdad's Azimiyah district, Foreign Ministry spokesman Thamir al-Adhami said. The attack took place in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood where support for Saddam Hussein was strong.

The attack was the second assassination of a senior Iraqi figure in the past month. The head of the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council, Izzadine Saleem, was killed in a suicide car-bombing May 17 at an entrance to the heavily guarded Green Zone headquarters of the U.S.-run occupation authority.

Another Governing Council member, Salama al-Khafaji, escaped injury in a May 27 ambush south of Baghdad but her son and chief bodyguard were killed. Council member Aquila al-Hashemi, also a career diplomat, was assassinated last September.

Despite the violence, the government received an endorsement Friday from an unlikely source - radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In a sermon read to his followers by an aide, al-Sadr said he was ready for a dialogue with the new government if it works to end the U.S. military presence.

"I support the new interim government," al-Sadr said. "Starting now, I ask you that we open a new page for Iraq and for peace."

In other developments:

  • The U.S. military plans to release another 650 prisoners on Monday from Abu Ghraib prison, center of the abuse scandal, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said Saturday. A week ago, the U.S. Army released another 320 detainees from
    Abu Ghraib, the fourth major release since the scandal broke in April.
  • Two roadside bombs exploded Saturday in Baqouba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, wounding two coalition soldiers and two Iraqi policemen, the U.S. military said.
  • One Iraqi civilian was killed and four others were injured Saturday when they were caught in crossfire between U.S. soldiers and unknown attackers in the Khan Dhari area about 12 miles west of Baghdad, an Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
  • In Beirut, Lebanese Foreign Ministry officials said Saturday that three Lebanese had been kidnapped in Iraq and one of them was tortured and killed in "grisly circumstances." One was freed and the other is still missing. A ministry official said Hussein Ali Alyan, a Lebanese Shiite who worked in construction, was killed by his captors for "financial reasons" and his body was dumped on a road near Baghdad.
  • Seven Turkish contractors who were working for a Turkish construction company in Iraq were freed in Fallujah and were en route to Mosul, according to a statement Saturday from an official of their employer.

    According to the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kubba and his driver were headed for his office when gunmen drove up behind him and opened fire. The assailants then passed the stricken vehicle and fired a second burst, the spokesman said.

    Both Kubba and his driver were wounded, and the deputy minister died later in hospital, the spokesman said.

    Kubba, 60, held a Master's degree in international relations from St. John's University in New York, was one of several deputy foreign ministers. He had served as acting chief the Iraqi mission to the United Nations in New York and as Iraq's ambassador to China. Kubba also served on the committee which ran the ministry after the fall of Saddam's regime.

    As for al-Sadr's remarks, U.S. officials in Baghdad said they were encouraged by them, but noted he has made contradictory statements on the issue in recent weeks. The young cleric is under strong pressure from the mainstream Shiite clerical hierarchy to soften his stand against the new government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

    At the same time, he wants to maintain his reputation as one of the few Iraqi leaders who stood up publicly to the Americans.

    In an interview Friday night with Al Arabiya television, al-Sadr's spokesman, Ahmed al-Shibani, said the cleric was ready for a dialogue with the government "on condition that it works to end the occupation and clearly announces to the Iraqi people and to the world that it rejects the occupation."
    "It has to put a timetable for the end of the occupation," al-Shibani said. "This is the main and principled way to recognize this government and cooperate with it."

    The U.S.-led occupation formally ends June 30 with the transfer of sovereignty to Allawi's government, and the U.N. resolution approved Tuesday by the Security Council sets a deadline of 2006 for ending the multinational military presence.

    The resolution also allows both the interim government and the one due to be elected in January to terminate the mandate for the force - although that appears unlikely.

    American authorities also hope the interim Iraqi government will win broad support among the 25 million Iraqis and take the steam out of the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency and the Shiite uprising al-Sadr launched in early April.

    U.S. officials had feared a major surge of violence in the run-up to the power transfer and although those predictions have so far not panned out, attacks on infrastructure and security installations suggest a campaign to undermine public confidence in the new Iraqi leadership.

    On Friday, gunmen blew up a police station in Yusufiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad, after driving off outgunned policemen in a hail of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. It was the fourth such attack on a police station in the past week.

    Elsewhere, the U.S. military said it was investigating the May 17 fatal shooting of an Iraqi male by an American soldier in Baghdad. A statement said the Iraqi was an "anti-Iraqi forces operative" who bragged that he had killed a 1st Cavalry Division soldier.

    During a raid to apprehend him, the Iraqi tried to grab the weapon of a U.S. soldier "who shot and killed the subject," the command said.

    Last week, the command said it was investigating a May incident in Kufa in which an Iraqi was shot dead at close range by an American following a shooting at a checkpoint.